MEDIA WATCH

Wilful ignorance and the lust for page 1

It is a question of whether we may be in some confusion about whether we are in the business of elucidating or just titillating

GEORGE BAIN September 25 1989
MEDIA WATCH

Wilful ignorance and the lust for page 1

It is a question of whether we may be in some confusion about whether we are in the business of elucidating or just titillating

GEORGE BAIN September 25 1989

Wilful ignorance and the lust for page 1

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

It is a question of whether we may be in some confusion about whether we are in the business of elucidating or just titillating

The uneasy feeling creeps on me, slowly, like moss, that the dedication of journalists to the proposition that we exist to foster understanding of events, rather than to confound it, is less firm in practice than it is in what we profess at conferences and seminars of the calling. Consider, for example, the reported confusion a couple of weeks ago about the government’s intentions toward the Goods and Services Tax (GST).

The Ottawa Citizen, on Aug. 26, flared a heading six columns wide across page 1: “Tax plan could change: PM.” No doubt true—almost anything can change at any time in any area of human endeavor, including many more stable than politics—but whether that makes news is something else again. It is especially so recognizing that when, in 1985, standing committees of the House of Commons were given latitude to gather opinion and express themselves on bills at an early stage, a foreseen benefit was that “a minister would then have a wider choice of advice on proposed legislation.” That implicitly accepted that change could result.

The Citizen story, by staff writer Greg Weston, began: “Prime Minister Brian Mulroney says his government will consider major changes to the planned nine-per-cent federal sales tax on almost all goods and services. In an exclusive interview . . . Mulroney said the recommendations of a Commons committee studying the issue could lead to such fundamental changes as a lowering of the rate.”

A reading of the transcript shows that, although Weston asked if there was “manoeuvrability on the rate, or the conditions, the exemptions, that type of thing,” the Prime Minister commented directly on none of those. The word “rate” never passed his lips. He said that the Commons finance committee, under Conservative MP Donald Blenkarn, had been given Finance Minister Michael Wilson’s technical paper to study and, “We’ll see what they say about it.” The next day, Gilbert Lavoie, the Prime Minister’s press secretary, complained

in a letter to the paper that to represent as coming from the Prime Minister the suggestion that the committee’s recommendations could lead “to such fundamental changes as a lowering of the rate” was wrong.

The Citizen ’s national editor, Graham Parley, replied that the newspaper had reviewed tapes of the interview and was “satisfied the story correctly interpreted the Prime Minister’s remarks.” The implication here may have been that an interpretation of words is a different thing from an accurate reflection of them. Translating the Prime Minister’s saying that the government “absolutely” would consider making changes in light of recommendations that might be forthcoming from the committee into the flat-out assertion that he “said the recommendations... could lead to such fundamental changes as a lowering of the rate” makes a long interpretive leap.

That was the start. For Tuesday papers— the Weston story ran Saturday, the PMO reply on Sunday—The Canadian Press (CP) put out a story that said: “There was confusion on the weekend after statements by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Finance Minister Michael Wilson about whether the rate could be lowered. Mulroney hotly denied a story published

Saturday in The Ottawa Citizen saying the federal government might lower the rate. He said there may be technical changes if there are compelling reasons.”

Already “could” had become “might.” (The Toronto Globe and Mail several days later went both the Citizen and CP one better and said that “Mr. Mulroney denied a story saying the government would reduce the rate.”) On top of that, the Citizen had not said, as reported by CP, that the federal government might lower the rate, but only that its recommendations “could lead to such fundamental changes as...” On top of that again, there was evidence elsewhere that the Prime Minister had not said, as also reported by CP, that there might be “technical changes if there are compelling reasons.” What he had said at the Conservative party convention that weekend in reply to reporters’ questions about the Citizen story was that “there would have to be a very compelling reason” to alter the nine-per-cent rate, and even then it would need to be in the context of “a whole series of helpful suggestions.”

Without the curious translation of that comment into the vague, and quite different, “there may be technical changes if there are compelling reasons,” the confusion alleged in the CP report could not have existed—except perhaps in the reporter’s mind. The Prime Minister’s statement that the government itself saw no reason to alter the rate, and the finance minister’s that the nine-per-cent rate was “pretty firm,” were the same.

The question here is not whether the rate for the GST may/might/will be changed before the tax goes into effect on Jan. 1, 1991—it would make a good bet that there will be various changes, including perhaps that one, before the tax legislation passes—but whether what we see here reflects only imprecision or something else. Among the something elses that would need to be included are wilful ignorance, and an indecent lusting after page 1, where it is known that conflict and confusion play better than concord. Wilful ignorance here lies in the unwillingness of an Ottawa media corps, a large part of whose trade is in retailing perceptions, itself to perceive that committees of the House of Commons have begun to count.

The finance committee, which is the one concerned here, has been the most notable of those so far. As a result, the time when cabinets in their majesty produced programs and— assuming a majority—could expect to enact them uninfluenced by the rest of the Commons has begun to wither away. The Prime Minister’s promise that the committee’s views will be treated as useful input—the GST as it stands could do with it—deserves to be hailed as a further step toward something resembling parliamentary democracy, rather than made to appear as indecision or equivocation.

As for the alleged confusion between the Prime Minister and the minister of finance— but that brings us back to the question of whether we, the media, may be in some confusion of our own about whether we are in the business of elucidating or titillating.